Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lehrke's Return Sparks Mavericks

Lehrke in action against Bemidji State
Earlier this year I wrote an article about Minnesota State University, Mankato senior Zach Lehkre deciding to hang up the skates and call an end to his hockey career. A muscle condition that left the Park Rapids, Minn. native in pain most days forced him to retire from hockey just before his final season at MSU began.
Lehrke was a pivotal part of the Maverick’s lineup the past two seasons and received more than his fair share of time on the power play. Heading into this season, it looked as if though he would be a big part of the Mavs lineup and one of the leaders on the team, but then he decided his body had taken its toll, and called it quits.

That didn’t last too long however, and Lehrke did in fact become a big part of this year’s team. The muscle condition wasn’t enough to keep him from playing the game he loves, and he decided to join his teammates and finish out his senior season, and his return has been nothing short of a blessing.

“I guess it was really hard to watch the guys play” said Lehrke, “I missed it a lot, as I knew I would but I thought to myself why would I forego my senior season when growing up I have put countless amount of hours into this game and have gone this far with all the pain I go through, it just didn’t seem fair to myself to hang them up yet for good.”

Lehrke was itching to get back on the ice, even if he knew it meant skating through the pain every day. He was humble in his experience, and very aware of how lucky he is to have the opportunity he has.

“Basically I told myself that I have one year left to play and not everybody is lucky enough to say they get to play division one hockey” said Lehrke.

The Mavericks, who hold a record of 17-13, were 4-6 before the return of Lehrke. He returned to the lineup on Nov. 22nd in the series at Bowling Green State University and his impact was immediately felt as he assisted on a power play goal in the first period of his return, and added another power play assist the next night. Two points in his first two games, and he has been keeping pace ever since.

Averaging just over a point per game with seven goals and 14 assists for 21 points through 20 games, Lehrke is on pace for a career high season point total, and in fewer games than the previous two seasons. Lehrke says he hasn’t changed anything about his game from the past few seasons, but the relationship between him and his team is what helps him succeed.

“I know that the coaches and my teammates have lots of confidence in me on the ice and especially on the power play” said Lehrke, “so I think that helps out tremendously, as confidence seems to elevate my game to
a new level.”

Not only is Lehrke reaping the benefits of returning to the team, but his team has benefited as well. Sitting at 4-6 before Lehrke’s comeback, the Maverick power play was hovering around a dismal nine percent success rate. Since the Bowling Green series that saw his return, the Mavs have improved their power play to 25 percent, which is good for second in the NCAA.

Captain Johnny McInnis spoke during the North Star College Cup of the improvement of the power play.
“It’s Lehkre”, he said, “He has great poise running the power play and just has a way of knowing how to find people.”

Lehrke, not being one to take all the credit, points to his line mates on the power play for the turnaround.

“We are a familiar group with each other” he said, “ we were together for the most part last year, so I think that is why our power play is successful.”

The extra punch he has brought the power play has also aided certain individuals in stepping up their game.
With the improvement of the power play since Zach returned to the lineup, junior Jean-Paul LaFontaine has skyrocketed to first in the NCAA for power play goals with 13, and first in the WCHA for points with 38. Not only has LaFontaine’s play improved since Lehrke’s return, but also junior Matt Leitner’s.

After a slower start than was expected of him, Leitner has been on fire. Only recording three points in those first ten games, all on assists, Leitner has posted 30 points in the 20 games since and sits in second place in the WCHA scoring race behind LaFontaine.

While calling Zach Lehrke a savior might be a stretch, it’s clear that he is a player that was missed in those first ten games this season. The high level of energy he brings to the table is something that simply cannot be taught to a player, but rather lies within their deep passion for the game. Lehrke shows plenty passion for the game each time he laces up the skates.

“Goals for me personally are to work hard each day and do anything I can do to help this team win.” said Lehrke.

Though his days in a Maverick sweater are coming to an end, MSU fans hope that Lehrke can help the Mavs to another playoff run into the NCAA tournament like last season, capping off his spectacular senior season and career in Mankato. His hopes are just the same.

“Obviously everybody wants to play in the Frozen Four, so that is definitely a team goal, but there are other goals to succeed in prior to that happening” he said, “we need to win the first round of the playoffs and getting to the final five, then win the final five and make the NCAA tournament, and then winning two games to get to the frozen four.”

Lehrke and the Mavs are back in action at home in a WCHA series this weekend, Facing off against the University of Alabma-Huntsville Chargers. The Mavericks swept the chargers in a two game series in Huntsville back in December, and are looking for four essential points in the WCHA standings in hopes to climb out of no. 2 in the league standings behind Ferris State University.

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